Saturday, 22 October 2011

Health and Coal

News stories come into my inbox like a torrent of water from the base of a melting glacier in high summer. There are far too many to be able to read them all but dipping in can uncover some interesting dilemmas. One pair of news stories that I came across in quick succession last week was of a conference in London and a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives. I would like to have brought the delegates and congressmen and congresswomen into the same location for what I am sure would have been a fiery debate.

In London, the opening statement of the conference on Health and Security Aspects of Climate Change included the words:

Climate change leads to more frequent and extreme weather events and to conditions that favour the spread of infectious diseases. Rising sea levels, floods and droughts cause loss of habitat, water and food shortages, and threats to livelihood. These trigger conflict within and between countries. Humanitarian crises will further burden military resources through the need for rescue missions and aid. Mass migration will also increase, triggered by both environmental stress and conflict, thus leading to serious further security issues. It will often not be possible to adapt meaningfully to these changes, and the economic cost will be enormous. As in medicine, prevention is the best solution...We therefore call upon governments around the world to prioritise efforts to address the causes and impacts of climate change.

In the U.S., a bipartisan bill had been passed in the U.S. House of Representatives to establish a state-based regulatory framework for management and disposal of coal ash. Steve Miller, President and CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) commended the U.S. House of Representatives for passing bipartisan legislation that would establish a state-based regulatory framework for management and disposal of coal ash.

“We support this bipartisan legislation because it would establish a sensible program to regulate coal ash and ensure the environment is protected without unnecessary increases in energy costs or putting American jobs in jeopardy.”

Coal is one of the dirtiest of fuels and a major contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking to bring in regulations to limit emissions but whilst coal continues to be burnt it makes sense to use the ash in a variety of applications such as additives in concrete and fill material for road building. According to Miller, “This legislation [with regard to coal ash] represents the kind of balanced federal-state partnership that is needed for environmental protection. On the other hand, EPA is considering regulations for coal-fueled power plants that will raise energy prices, hurt families, and destroy American jobs.”

I note this juxtaposition of news stories to expose the disconnections as people argue their case within different policy stovepipes. Within the parameters of their own particular discussion they are making logical choices. One group of experts on human health is urging urgent action whilst an industry lobby group is protecting the very activities that need to be brought under control. We have been here before; remember the fight to deny that smoking was a danger to public health as cigarette companies defended their bottom line. There was little doubt who would win in the end but it took far too long, and too many people suffered, before the battle was won.

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